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Who's the Best?

It has been two years since PC World last asked its readers to rate the service and product reliability of the leading computer and peripheral vendors. This time more than 60,000 of you--nearly double our previous survey's number of respondents--weighed in.

As they did two years ago, PC World readers gave their highest praise to Apple, Canon, and Lenovo. The worst performers overall were Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark.

Apple and Lenovo (formerly IBM) remain the most admired notebook vendors, each garnering higher-than-average scores in five categories, including customers' overall satisfaction with their service experience and with product reliability. Apple did well in desktops too, as did eMachines, which Acer recently acquired. People who bought systems built at mom-and-pop computer stores reported more reliability problems but were very happy with the service they received. No vendor stood out in the MP3 player section, though Apple, Sony, and Toshiba scored slightly better than average in some areas.

Routers, too, had no superstars, but Cisco and Linksys earned better-than-average marks on two criteria each. Canon posted positively stellar marks in both the printer and camera sections, with excellent scores in eight of the nine categories. Samsung did well in printers, too, and Panasonic, Nikon, and Sony finished high among cameras.

Dell, whose customers have flogged it in recent years for its poor tech support, earned mixed scores. Readers grumbled about lengthy hold times for Dell's phone support, but they praised the vendor's ability to resolve desktop and notebook problems. Dell's printers didn't fare nearly as well, however, receiving low scores on reliability and ease of use.

CyberPower, a California-based vendor that builds gaming PCs, earned unusually low marks in four desktop reliability categories--a repeat of the vendor's performance two years ago. CyberPower CEO Eric Cheung responded that his company's component failure rate is within industry guidelines, and that CyberPower is working to improve its tech support offerings by expanding the capacity of its support center.

The biggest surprise in this year's results is Hewlett-Packard's poor performance. In our survey two years ago, HP--which is now the largest computer manufacturer in the world--did well, aside from a few poor ratings for its printers and Compaq-brand laptops. (Hewlett-Packard makes both HP- and Compaq-brand products. Though we rated HP and Compaq products separately, our evaluation of HP's overall performance includes scores for both product brands.)

Respondents were less kind this time around. Readers put HP near the bottom in diverse categories (desktop PCs, laptops, printers, and digital cameras). In desktop PCs, problem areas span both support and reliability. Readers who own HP cameras or printers reported a higher-than-average incidence of problems arising at some point in their product's life. (As we went to press, the company announced that it will stop making its own cameras early next year. For more, see "HP Zooms Out of Camera Business.") Readers also say that HP products are more likely than competing models to arrive with "out-of-the-box" problems. Jim Kahler, HP's director of consumer warranties, had no direct explanation for his company's poor showing in reliability. HP's reliability rates, Kahler says, "are dramatically improving across our product line. Our product quality metrics are trending in the right direction." (See "HP Tumbles" for additional details.)

Hewlett-Packard wasn't the only vendor to feel some heat this year. Lexmark earned poorer-than-average marks on six of the printer measures--similar to its showing last time. Other lowlights include Averatec laptops, Epson and Xerox printers, and Kodak cameras. On the bright side, some vendors fared better this time: 2Wire improved in the router category, Brother moved up in printers, and RCA stepped forward in MP3 players.

Are service and reliability improving overall? Anecdotal accounts from readers indicate that long waits on hold, clueless support reps, and slapdash workmanship haven't gone away by any means. But other respondents report a largely hassle-free experience, albeit one garnished with occasional gripes about quirky or hard-to-use features. The good news: Industry analysts tell us that many companies are improving.

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